Ward ultimate love-hate player

The Steelers and their fans embrace Ward as the 'ultimate competitor,' while in Baltimore and around the league he is a marked, disliked player because he's a winner

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Since Hines Ward joined the Steelers in 1998 and began what is looking more and more like a Hall of Fame NFL career, the team has a 113-71-1 record. He is not into ranking wins, but, if he were, surely the one against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, when he was the MVP, would be No. 1. Just as surely, the 14 wins against the Baltimore Ravens would be next.

"There is nothing like beating Baltimore," a very satisfied Ward said Sunday night as he strolled out of M&T Bank Stadium with a 13-9 smackdown of the Ravens, the AFC North Division title and a first-round playoff bye.

That's why Ward enjoyed his conversations late in the game with Ravens All-Pros Ray Lewis and Ed Reed so much.

"I told 'em both that we were about to score and beat 'em in their own back yard," Ward said, almost giggling.

"No, you ain't!" Lewis and Reed screamed back among a few other unprintable words.

Well, guess what?

Ben Roethlisberger's 4-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds left broke the Ravens' hearts. But what really ticked them off were Ward's contributions to the winning, 12-play, 92-yard drive: three catches for 36 yards.

Losing is one thing in Baltimore.

Losing to Ward and the Steelers is something much worse, especially when the defeat could end up costing the Ravens a playoff slot.

"I'm pretty sure I'm the most-hated guy down here," Ward said, smiling again.

Smirking, actually.

"I love being the most-hated guy here," he said. "I love beating them while [their fans] are flicking me off."

It goes back to a 2001 game when Ward drilled Ravens safety Rod Woodson with a block and bloodied his nose, prompting Woodson to swear he would get even. Last season, Ward popped Reed and linebacker Bart Scott with brutal blocks, leading Scott to promise to "kill" Ward and tell him, "Payback is a [bleep]." Earlier this season, linebacker Terrell Suggs went on a national radio show and said the Ravens had a bounty on Ward when the teams played Sept. 29.

"I know Hines is loving this," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said after Ward's eight-catch, 107-yard game Sunday. "He always has a chip on his shoulder when he plays these guys because he knows they're going to come at him and try to do something bad to him."

For a long time, it looked as if the Ravens would inflict the worst kind of pain on Ward -- a Steelers loss. They led, 9-3, into the fourth quarter and he had done very little. He had two short catches on the Steelers' first possession, then had just one on their next nine, although that 21-yard play set up their second-quarter field goal.

But Ward had five catches for 74 yards in the fourth quarter, all five for first downs. His 30-yard reception set up the field goal that pulled the Steelers to 9-6. Then, he had those three catches on the deciding drive.

"I'm not surprised by anything that Hines Ward does," Farrior said. "He's the ultimate competitor."

Said Ward, "I thrive on wanting the ball in the fourth quarter. Some guys don't want it. They shy away from it in the big situations. I want it. I love it."

Holmes and wide receiver Nate Washington have had some big moments this season, but they aren't nearly as consistent as Ward. If I'm Roethlisberger, I'm looking for Ward or tight end Heath Miller in every critical spot. It seems amazing now that the Steelers were able to beat the Dallas Cowboys Dec. 7 with Ward getting just one catch for 2 yards. He also had only one catch two weeks earlier against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"It's hard and it gets frustrating, but we're winning," Ward said. "It's a lot easier to get over it when we're winning.

"I like getting the ball, just like all receivers do. But you'll never hear me being a T.O." -- Terrell Owens of the Dallas Cowboys -- "because that's not my style. I just try to make plays when my number is called. I don't make all of them, but my percentage is pretty good."

Especially against the Ravens.

Excluding his rookie season, Ward has 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns in 20 games against Baltimore. This was the sixth time he had at least eight catches against the Ravens.

If Ward had a regret Sunday, it's that he wasn't able to finish a block on Scott late in the third quarter. He peeled back on a Roethlisberger scramble and had Scott lined up for a legal hit only to go over top of him when Scott ducked.

"They put a bounty on me and then he ducks," Ward said, shrugging.

"He saw Hines coming and he was scared!" Holmes crowed from two lockers down.

It didn't matter in the end.

Ward didn't need to knock Scott into next week to go home feeling happy.

The win was plenty good enough.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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